Things have changed a lot in the years since Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was a high school student in the late 1980s.

For one, today's teenagers use much less hairspray than he used to, Cox told an auditorium full of students at Mountain Ridge High School on Monday. And most high school students today can't comprehend having to respool a cassette tape with a pencil after it was "eaten" by their tape player.

But Cox wasn't just there to wax nostalgic about his teenage years. Instead, he offered a message of hope and optimism in light of the myriad obstacles many young people face.

'We are not helpless'

The visit was the 29th and final stop in the governor's "Connecting Utah" tour, throughout which he has met with high schoolers in each of Utah's 29 counties. The tour has brought to light another change since he was in school: Many high schoolers today are stressed about their economic futures because of rising housing costs.

"I really have been shocked at how many kids are worried about the price of housing," Cox told after taking questions from several students. "Adults should be worried about the price of housing, not kids. It's helped me to just recalibrate and redouble our efforts on that one for sure."

He told students that his purpose in speaking to them was to convince them "that there's never been a better time to be alive than right now, and there's never been a better place to live than right here in Utah."

It may not always seem like that, Cox said, in part because cellphones make it easier than ever to hear about terrible things happening around the world, marking another difference with his youth, when "the bad things were not constantly in front of us."

The governor has repeatedly blamed social media platforms — and the algorithms that dictate what their users see — for contributing to a decadelong trend of declining mental health among teens.

He didn't discount the real problems facing students, though, and pointed to social media restrictions for minors he recently signed into law as an example of the way government can act to try to improve outcomes.

"Yes, there are problems in the world today, but we are not helpless," Cox said. "You are not helpless. All right, you're helpless if you're on your phones all the time ... but we're not helpless. We can do this. We can fix the biggest problems that are facing us in this world today."

Gov. Spencer Cox talks with student body officers prior to him speaking to students at Mountain Ridge High School on Monday.
Gov. Spencer Cox talks with student body officers prior to him speaking to students at Mountain Ridge High School on Monday. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Young people are key to solving those problems, the governor said, which is why he's taken the time to hear from them directly.

"I've learned so much from these students and I truly believe that they are wired differently and better," he told "Sure, they have their problems, but so did my generation and so does every generation. When you talk to them, they are paying so much more attention to what's happening in the world and consequentially I think they're going to be the ones that come up with the solutions."

Combating divisiveness

Cox answered questions from five students, after which he asked them each to describe the United States of America in a single word. The students offered the words "opportunity," "unfriendly," "diversity," "challenging" and "optimistic."

Throughout the tour, Cox said the most common answer he heard was "divided," with "chaotic," "intolerant," "rigged" and "weak" as other common responses. He said he usually heard around 10 negative words for every positive one.

In recent years, fewer Americans think that opposing sides should work together and more hold very unfavorable views of other political parties, Cox said. He urged the students to promote healthy conflict and disagreement, which he said is "really important to our system of government."

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"I need your help," he said. "We can disagree without hating each other. We can try to see the other person's perspective, right? That will help us to become a better country."

Although the world is radically different compared to the world of the 1980s, some things haven't changed. Cox said the nation was founded on the "profound" idea that "all men are created equal," and that government should exist to protect people's rights.

"You and I are the beneficiaries of those incredible freedoms that have led us to this era of prosperity that no other nation in the history of the world has ever seen," he said. "And I worry that we are forgetting about that, and I need your help to remember ... that this country is great, and it is great when we are good. This country is different. This country is special.

"We need your help to remember that there is nothing more un-American than hating our fellow Americans and we can do better."

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